The Measure Z showdown

Those who watched the recent debate between Vice Mayor John Knox White and Alameda Citizens Task Force steering committee member Paul Foreman on Measure Z, the ballot measure to repeal Article XXVI of the City Charter, were treated to a classic performance by Mr. Knox White.

From time to time, the Vice Mayor took the high road, urging Alamedans who “care about” racial equity and social justice to vote for Measure Z.  He also spoke up for “the people who live here and the people who right now can’t afford to live here in a massive real-estate problem and housing problem that is getting worse.”

More often, however, Mr. Knox White stuck to the territory with which he’s most comfortable: distorting facts, disparaging opponents, and disseminating pronunciamentos.  And he did it all with his typical air of smug self-righteousness.

We doubt that anyone on the fence about Measure Z was persuaded by Mr. Knox White’s presentation.  But those who already agreed with him surely had their views resoundingly reaffirmed.  Indeed, if one turned on the “Chat” function in Zoom, one saw nothing but praise for Mr. Knox White and pans for Mr. Foreman.  And the voting members of the City of Alameda Democratic Club, which sponsored the debate, ended up endorsing the ballot measure by a tally of 48-to-9.

Donald Trump, it would appear, is not the only politician whose base will cheer his every utterance, however unfounded or unbounded it may be.

We’ll start with the fact-checking.  What’s especially interesting to us here – because it’s indicative of his approach to public discourse – is how Mr. Knox White responded when Mr. Foreman called him out on his misstatements.

During the 40 minutes of the debate, Mr. Knox White got a few even simple facts wrong.

For example, he declared that, at a “very strong and very well-attended” Planning Board meeting (held in January 2020), “six out of the seven members voted for full repeal [of Article XXVI] based on the public input and the public discussion.”

It never happened.  In fact, the Board took no vote on the issue at all that night.

When Mr. Foreman called him on his error, Mr. Knox White replied, “I’m not going to argue about what happened at the Planning Board.  That’s getting into details that are really not all that important.”

In other cases, Mr. Knox White cherry-picked the data to support the conclusion he wanted.

For example, he claimed that, “We have real-world experiences, beyond just theory, that show that when we build denser and in more transit-oriented areas like Alameda Landing we can decrease the amount of driving by 30 percent.”

One might have thought Mr. Knox White was referring to reduced automobile use by the residents who live in the new development.  As it happens, the five-year report for the West Alameda Transit Management Association did report a 30 percent reduction in peak-hour trips – but it was for trips taken to and from work by commercial/retail employees, who still drove alone 62 percent of the time, not by Alameda Landing residents.  (The “executive summary” in the report, it should be noted in the Vice Mayor’s defense, erroneously reversed the residential and commercial/retail goals set by the TDM plan.)

Finally, and most outrageously, Mr. Knox White asserted that, “State law says that Article XXVI is illegal.”

It doesn’t.

There is no state statute that prohibits a city from zoning its residential sites for single-family use or that requires it to zone every residential site for multi-family housing.  If there were, Article XXVI(1) would be illegal.  But there isn’t, and it’s not.

Similarly, there is no state statute that prohibits a city from limiting density to one unit per 2,000-square feet or that requires it to permit a greater density everywhere in the city.  If there were, Article XXVI(3) would be illegal.  But there isn’t, and it’s not.  Instead, only if a city’s existing land inventory isn’t sufficient to meet the low-income housing quota set by its Regional Housing Needs Assessment does state law require it to re-zone property to a higher density.

When Mr. Foreman challenged Mr. Knox White on this legal issue, the Vice Mayor replied that, “Paul gets into the details of language and ignores the fact that his statements were incorrect in the beginning.”  (Whatever that meant.)  Then he changed the subject.

Despite the plain error of his position, Mr. Knox White (who fancies himself an expert on the law as well as in a host of other areas) and his fans undoubtedly will continue repeating it.  Nevertheless, it bears noting that Andrew Thomas, the City’s Planning, Building and Transportation director and as adamant an opponent of the Article XXVI as there can be, didn’t contend in his scathing December 2019 “evaluation” of the Charter provision that it is illegal.  Instead, Mr. Thomas got the law exactly right:  “To the extent that Article XXVI includes provisions that are inconsistent with State Law, those provisions are preempted.”  Mr. Knox White may have missed the relevant law school class, but we didn’t:  Preemption is just not synonymous with illegality.

For much of the evening, Mr. Knox White, as is his wont, was in attack mode.

Typically, he accused Mr. Foreman and his allies of being ignorant of basic facts, such as the RHNA requirement.  (Which Mr. Foreman actually recited, using the correct numbers, more than once.)  He also appears to have discovered a new word, “disingenuous,” which he ladled out generously, if not always aptly.

And he lobbed other unfounded charges as well.

For example, he accused Mr. Foreman of “drumming up nightmare scenarios that no one in City Hall is talking about and reading things out of context without any discussion and suggesting really terrible things.”  In fact, the “scenario” described by Mr. Foreman to which Mr. Knox White referred came directly from the recently released draft General Plan update, which proposed, among other things, exempting certain properties built before 1942 from the current rules against demolition and removing multi-family prohibitions and density limitations in “transit-oriented areas.”  If this was a “nightmare scenario,” it was one dreamed up by Mr. Thomas and his consultants who drafted the update, not one drummed up by Mr. Foreman and his allies.

Similarly, Mr. Knox White accused Mr. Foreman of proposing, if Measure Z didn’t pass, to “jam as many homes as humanly possible onto” land at Harbor Bay Landing, Marina Village, and South Shore.  In fact, Mr. Foreman has never made any such proposal.  It is the City’s Mr. Thomas who has talked publicly – and to the Merry-Go-Round – about the South Shore shopping center as a potential site for new housing to meet the expected higher RHNA quotas – if Measure Z does pass.  So once again Mr. Foreman is made to take the fall for an idea emanating from City staff.

Finally, no Knox White performance could be complete without ad hominem attacks.

Despite having declared that, unlike others, he was above impugning the motives of Alamedans who voted for Measure A (which became Article XXVI) in 1973, Mr. Knox White insisted that the Measure Z opponents are motivated by their desire to see Alameda become a “wealthy enclave.”  To that end, he suggested, Mr. Foreman and his allies are pursuing a policy of exclusion.  “This is about anti-housing,” the Vice Mayor maintained.  “This is about keeping people out of our community and not allowing people who live in our community to be able to afford to stay here.”  In every story told by Mr. Knox White, there’s got to be a villain.

On the substance, Mr. Knox White displayed his customary predilection for making sweeping assertions and dispensing with nuance.

The Vice Mayor began the debate by declaring what he apparently considered unarguable truths.  “At the end of the day, what we need to do is look at the facts,” he said.  “[W]e know for a fact that housing is more expensive because of Article XXVI.  We know for a fact that it generates more traffic.  We know for a fact that it is less environmentally sound.”

Oh, do we now?

Take traffic.  There are indeed studies that say that single-family homes generate more vehicle trips per unit than apartment buildings.  Thus, a Charter provision like Article XXVI permitting only single-family homes (and duplexes) must be responsible for the traffic congestion that plagues Alameda, right?  To Mr. Knox White, it’s that simple.

But it’s not.  The traffic impact of any particular residential project is a function not only of trips per unit but also of the number of units in the project.  Suppose a developer could build a dozen single-family homes on a given parcel under Article XXVI, or 40 apartments on the same parcel if Article XXVI is repealed.  Would the former really generate more traffic than the latter?  We don’t “know for a fact,” but we wouldn’t think so.

(The same fallacy applies to an argument based on GHG emissions per unit.  An Article XXVI-compliant project may emit more or less carbon dioxide than a multi-family project on the same-size lot; it depends on the number of units in each.)

The categorical denunciations didn’t stop there.  “Article XXVI,” Mr. Knox White declared, “is one of the most egregious examples in the Bay Area of the type of housing laws that have been put in place that cause this type of displacement.”  Likewise, “Nobody can look at what’s happened over the last 47 years and make a case that there has not been some disparate impact.”

Mr. Knox White’s approach to the displacement issue is, again, narrow and simplistic:  Why do current renters leave the city?  Because housing is too expensive.  And why is housing too expensive?  Because Article XXVI permits only single-family homes.  Q.E.D.

Well, we’ve read enough stories to know that “displacement” is not unique to Alameda (if indeed it is taking place here; we haven’t seen the data).  It is a Bay Area-wide phenomenon.  But the “type of housing laws” of which Article XXVI is “one of the most egregious examples” isn’t usually cited as the sole, or even the primary, cause of the increased housing costs that are driving renters out of cities.  Instead, the blame more often is laid on increased demand by highly paid tech-industry workers.

By the same token, Mr. Knox White’s assertion that “nobody can make a case” that Article XXVI hasn’t had a “disparate impact” obscures his own failure to make a case that it has.

Indeed, he didn’t even give it much of a try.  We’ll take him at his word that San Leandro’s non-white population has increased more than Alameda’s since 1970.  But we’re not quite sure what that proves about Article XXVI.  San Leandro, we suppose, has no similar Charter provision, but neither does San Francisco, whose non-white population, according to Mr. Knox White, has been “decimated” over that period.

For our part, we’d be more inclined to blame rising income inequality – a demonstrable fact not unique to Alameda – rather than a provision in our City Charter for any racial disproportionality in the population mix.  And if you want to say that rising income inequality is a consequence of “systemic racism,” go right ahead.  Just don’t say it’s Article XXVI’s fault.

As we have previously written, however, the issue of what harm, if any, Article XXVI did in the past is less important than the issue of what benefit, if any, its repeal would produce for the future.

And here again Mr. Knox White spoke only to those prepared to take him at face value.

To a large extent, he simply flipped his arguments about harms caused by the Charter provision 180 degrees around.  Article XXVI created “racial disparities”; repealing it will perforce eliminate them.  Article XXVI increased traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions; repealing it will perforce reduce them.  Cutting out the cancer, he seemed to say, will immediately restore the patient to health.  Would that it were so easy.

In addition, Mr. Knox White made the argument we were expecting to hear:  i.e., that repealing Article XXVI would increase the supply of affordable housing in Alameda.  But he seemed to focus his attention on how repeal would enable developers to build housing in the Park and Webster Street business districts, thereby “supporting the many mom-and-pop and local businesses that we love. . . .”  Maybe so, but the resulting addition to the affordable-housing stock wouldn’t seem to be that significant.

There is, however, a more straightforward case to be made:  If Article XXVI is repealed, and a compliant Council rewrites the zoning ordinances to permit higher densities, a developer could build a bigger project than it can now.  And since the City has an inclusionary housing ordinance requiring 15% of a for-profit residential development to be deed-restricted for very-low-, low-, and moderate-income housing, a bigger project produces more “affordable” units.  Assuming the developer can find the land and the money, a landscape in which Article XXVI is no longer a constraint might indeed result in a lot more low-income housing.

Strangely, however, the Vice Mayor didn’t make this argument.  Perhaps he shares Mr. Foreman’s dim view of large-scale apartment towers after all.  Or maybe – we think it’s more likely – he doesn’t want to have his standing in certain “progressive” circles tarnished if he’s seen to be urging building more market-rate housing for rich people.  (Calling David Campos.)  Safer just to proclaim that repealing Article XXVI will produce a desirable result without going too deeply into how or why.

Our readers may notice that we’ve devoted this piece to Mr. Knox White and not touched on the performance by Mr. Foreman.  There’s a reason:  Mr. Knox White is an elected official and thus fair game for criticism; Mr. Foreman is not.  And we have to admit that we’re biased:  we can’t help but admire Mr. Foreman for having the guts to take on John Knox White at a meeting of the City of Alameda Democratic Club.  It’s like agreeing to debate Trump at an N.R.A. convention.

As for the moderator, tenant advocate Eric Strimling, we commend him for his professionalism and even-handedness.  Eric, get yourself appointed to the bench; we wouldn’t mind arguing a case in front of you.

Sources:  The City of Alameda Democratic Club has posted the video of the Measure Z debate on its Facebook page.  (N.B. The first part of the video is devoted to candidates for County offices).


About Robert Sullwold

Partner, Sullwold & Hughes Specializes in investment litigation
This entry was posted in City Hall, Development, Housing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to The Measure Z showdown

  1. dave says:

    Facts don’t really have much bearing on religion, do they? Preachers don’t need laws or dates or facts, nor do their adherents, because they have what matters most: faith (typically blind).

  2. Franco Pantofola says:

    The warning signs are flashing bright red…time to get out of Alameda. The Prog Squad is taking a once decent place to live down the rabbit hole. Shoving their narrative down people’s throats is no formula for success….Good Luck folks!

  3. JRB says:

    How convenient that there’ll be absolutely no mention of Paul Foreman’s serious conflict of interest here, as it benefits him financially to maintain an artificial scarcity of available affordable units. I especially loved the part during the debate where Paul Foreman said: “I live in a noncompliant condo, so it is not going to affect me.” That is No on Z in a nutshell – “I got mine.”

    • MJane says:

      No, “no on Z” is not in a nutshell “I got mine”. Nor does it seem remotely reasonable to label a homeowner in Alameda as having a “serious conflict of interest” in this issue simply because they own their own home. Such broad disparagement is akin to saying that anyone who doesn’t own their own home in Alameda doesn’t care about what happens in the long run because they have “no skin in the game” – suggesting they don’t care about long-term consequences because they haven’t made the financial investment here that the homeowners have. Can we agree both of these aren’t de facto true?
      Don’t confuse accusing people of malfeasance because you think it somehow proves your point (it doesn’t). If someone is wrong you should be able to make that point using facts without attacking them personally. So how about quitting with the character smearing and stick to the issues?
      It seems there is ample space at Alameda Point to build lots and lots of dense housing and Article 26 does not apply to Alameda Point anyway, so maybe we don’t NEED to repeal Article 26 and build big apartment buildings right next to old houses until such time that Alameda Point is completely built out.
      Already it is State law that an additional unit can be added to almost any property in Alameda that currently has a single family home on it (except HOA’s like on Harbor Bay). This law has in effect already eliminated the single-house-on-a-single-lot that some people claim is inherently racist. We don’t need to repeal Article 26 in order to stuff a second unit onto every property that doesn’t already have one.
      Forget about traffic – it will continue to be a problem as long as there are more people moving into the newly established housing, wherever it may be.

      • Marilyn Pomeroy says:

        Well Said, MJane.

      • Franco Pantofola says:

        You are onto something MJ. Sadly proponents want to turn the Big Island into another Staten Island (NYC). Unintended consequences lurk in the shadows…

      • Dave says:

        Mission Bay in San Francisco is a physically, aesthetically, closer version of that Measure Z proponents want – all $900K condos with no true affordable housing.

    • Kevin says:

      Same old Jason. SMH!

  4. MP says:

    Have plenty to disagree on with Eric Strimling, but he did a fine job moderating.

  5. Bob S says:

    Thank you Mr. Sullwold, I also listened to the debate and your review of the evening is even handed and a true reflection of what was said.

  6. Marilyn Pomeroy says:

    You should put this into the Alameda Journal. I am afraid that the effort to make this all about race and class is succeeding.

    • JRB says:

      It’s not an “effort.” It’s removing a veil that’s been there a long time. This Measure A ad from 1973 is full of coded language and just reeks of classism, which is a way to perpetuate racism in a post-Fair Housing Act America (the Fair Housing Act in 1968 specifically outlawed use of race in housing codes). There’s nothing “succeeding” about asking Alameda to confront its history and its impact today, this is a reconciliatory process that’s long overdue. Today, 56% of all white people in Alameda are homeowners, whereas only 7% of all African Americans are homeowners. The impact of Article 26 is felt very strongly in the minority community, and we need to reverse this trend.

      • Marilyn Pomeroy says:

        I think you just made my point.
        There are more than enough suburban waste lands in the bay area as it is. I wonder why you interpret the desire to preserve the character of our island’s architecture is code for something else. Let’s talk about reparations, and leave the beautiful residential areas of Alameda as a legacy for our children and grandchildren.
        During the years when we served on the BRAG and BRAC commissions there was much flowery discussion about how development at the base would integrate seamlessly into the rest of Alameda, and we can see how that is turning out .

  7. Gretchen dael Lipow says:

    Why isn’t the Asian population ever mentioned as a significant minority 33%, don’t they count?

    • Franco Pantofola says:

      Good point! This is the slippery slope of Identity Politics. Sad.

      • Marilyn Pomeroy says:

        The story of Asians in Alameda does not fit there narrative, so it is left out.

      • Franco Pantofola says:

        You have managed to put a brief moment of sanity into a truly jumbled mess which should lead folks like JRB to once again play the “R” card in an attempt to shame folks into accepting his POV. Alameda is rapidly slipping into oblivion all thanks to “Virtue Signaling” .

    • JRB says:

      It’s not whether or not Alameda is diverse today, but how its diversity has been increasing comparatively, and there’s plenty of data to show it increased at a slower rate compared to the rest of the region. Asians in general deal with a slightly different kind of racism (“the model minority”) often to denigrate other minority groups. That said, groups like Latinos and African Americans have only 29% and 7% rate of homeownership compared to whites (54%) in Alameda, and Article 26 is clearly exacerbating this divide. We cannot simply point to one group as a success to dismiss valid concerns for other groups.

      I’m Asian and a homeowner in Alameda, and I am willing to be cognizant of the fact that there’s more work to be done here to ensure a more inclusive Alameda for all. Repeal Article 26.

      • Marilyn Pomeroy says:

        Wondering where that comment at the end of your post came from. Was that a quote from someone?
        I just have to point out that much of the support for repealing Measure A comes from people who live on Harbor Bay, and that because of the HOAs , those people will be minimally effected .

      • JRB says:

        It’s interesting that you mentioned Harbor Bay, because Measure A was passed in 1973 ostensibly to protect victorians but, according to letters and campaign ads around that time, actually to dampen new development on Bay Farm (we could not find any mention of “victorians” anywhere from that campaign – even Dennis Evanosky, Alameda’s historian, has confirmed this). I’d argue that support for repealing Measure A is pretty strong throughout the island, not just Harbor Bay, especially the West End communities that tend to be disproportionately minorities.

        If you’d like to learn more about the African American experience in Alameda, particularly the struggle for housing and Article 26, I highly recommend reading this paper. There is also a roundtable discussion happening today by the East Bay Housing Organization to explain Article 26’s adverse impact on minorities, I’m hoping it will be recorded for all to view later.

      • Marilyn Pomeroy says:

        What do you mean by dampen new development?

      • Marilyn Pomeroy. says:

        The difference in home ownership between blacks and whites in Alameda is largely a function of income disparity, which is a national issue and will not be helped at all by repealing measure A.
        The Artificial scarcity in housing which the former mayor, Dela Croix?attributes to measure A was actually caused by the AHA decision to demolish wartime projects and reduce the number of units from 5000 to 460. Seems like the math is pretty clear on this.

      • JRB says:

        Marilyn – African-American homeownership rate in the Bay Area is about 32%. In Alameda, it is 7%. That is a very significant gap. What makes Alameda so different from the rest of the Bay Area that makes homeownership more difficult to obtain? I will give you only one guess.

      • Marilyn Pomeroy says:

        So your logic is, Since Alameda has lower black ownership than surrounding communities, and Alameda has measure A, then Measure A is the cause of Lower than average black home ownership? I would suggest it is co-incidental, but not causal. Once the base is built our, our density numbers will be through the roof, without tearing down SFR’s to build apartment buildings. We have time to see if that changes our percentage of black owned housing. There is no reason to rush to overturn measure A just because all of a sudden it is all about race.

      • Franco Pantofola says:

        Agreed MP…playing the “R” card is lazy and a sad attempt to stifle discussion to get one’s way. Moderation of opinion these days is so rare. Sad.

      • JRB says:

        “There is no reason to rush to overturn measure A just because all of a sudden it is all about race.”

        There’s no “rush” to overturn Measure A. This has been in discussion for over 10 years and each year as the racial divide becomes more exacerbated and the African American community continues to disappear from Alameda, overturning Measure A has only become more inevitable. The discussion about the racial impact of Measure A has been ongoing for years and well known to community activists, city leaders, and Alameda historians. A quick Google search:





        1973 (Robert Crown, of Crown Beach fame, was against Measure A because he knew the deleterious impact it would have on Alameda’s diversity. Mayor LaCroix also had similar comments as well):

  8. RDS says:

    Viewing the video, and examining the arguments put forward by Mr. Knox, I grieve for the state of political discussion in Alameda. Personal attacks. Made up facts. Dismissal of documented facts which don’t agree with assertions. This is what “progressive” has come to? How disappointing.

  9. Frank Tiesma says:

    I bookedmarked your blog for the much appreciated insights you often provide. This one was unreadble. Perhaps your normal insights are buried within this emotional diatribe, but it wasn’t worth the effort. Please consider a rewrite to bring to your normal standard.

    • Marilyn Pomeroy says:

      Seems like a lazy boy critique. Can you be more specific?

      • Dave says:

        He simply doesn’t agree with the final analysis of JKW. That’s all.

      • Frank Tiesma says:

        Fair question, Marilyn. Yes, with examples:
        – get to the point, e.g., “Can you be more specific?”
        – drop the snarky fluff, e.g., “Seems like a lazy boy critique.”

        Context: I typically have an opinion on issues covered here and read it to be challenged, picking up points missed, to learn where I’m wrong.

        This blog entry starts with 7 snarky paragraphs before, “For example…” followed by two excellent points, and a provocative third point. There, Mr. Sullwold seems to imply our existing situation is automatically legal as long as there is sufficient land inventory, like a math equation.* If so, Mr. Sullwold could have stopped there but, instead, added two more snarky paragraphs.

        I stopped at the next paragraph, “…as is his wont…” and scanned ahead to check the snark/point ratio. Too much snark. I came to learn about Measure Z, not Mr. Knox White.

        *I’m intrigued but have questions on the third point. What is counted as inventory and should legality benefit from instances where preemptive statues have been applied? If not, is the legality of a local law that makes it impossible to meet state mandates at least questionable? Isn’t the reason the state has created preemptive statutes precisely because many local governments have passed laws to make it impossible meet state mandates?

      • Marilyn Pomeroy says:

        Sounds as though your sensitivities were offended. I apologize for my part in that.

  10. Dave says:

    Despite the highly complicated history of housing policy in this country, all of which has contributed to the current state of affairs, Measure Z proponents, who are really only trying to service for-profit developers, need to desperately pin everything on Article 26 to be able to overturn it for the creation of market-rate housing almost exclusively.

    As always, they ignore the Density Bonus Law, enacted in 1979, which enables all the sorts of housing they say they want – when below market rate housing and child daycares are included.

  11. Marilyn Pomeroy says:

    I suggest you click on the link if you are interested in some measure A history

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